Given the state of the acting profession, perhaps we should be relieved that only two of the three British nominees for best drama actor in the recently announced Golden Globe awards went to a public school.

The Imitation Game’s Benedict Cumberbatch attended Harrow, while The Theory of Everything’s Eddie Redmayne went to Eton. David Oyelowo, nominated for his performance as Martin Luther King, went to a comprehensive school in north London.

Redmayne appears to be the least heralded success story of the three. Cumberbatch and Oyelowo both have huge hit television series behind them – Sherlock and Spooks respectively – while Redmayne has hacked through a somewhat less high-profile career of independent movies, modelling for Burberry, one or two less high-profile TV shows and stage roles.

However, his performance as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything has moved him into the acting elite. According to Leslie Felperin, film critic for the Hollywood Reporter, Redmayne deserves it. “It helps he’s playing a character we instinctively like and warm to, and there of course has been a history of actors playing disabled characters doing well at awards time. But it’s an excellent performance, and there’s no doubt he belongs in the bracket.”

Since its premiere at the Toronto film festival in September, The Theory of Everything has drawn almost universally admiring reviews. The Guardian’s Catherine Shoard called Redmayne’s “an astonishing, genuinely visceral performance which bears comparison with Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot”, while Rolling Stone’s Pete Travers wrote: “Hawking is a role that demands miracles of an actor. And Eddie Redmayne, in a landmark performance, delivers them.”

Stephen Hawking has also praised the actor. “I thought Eddie Redmayne portrayed me very well,” he said in a recent interview. “At times I thought he was me. I think Eddie’s commitment will have a big emotional impact.”

The film’s director has revealed some insight into Redmayne’s ambition: James Marsh, who is best known for the documentary Man on Wire, told the Observer: “To say Eddie was hungry for the role was an understatement, he was ravenous … It was often quite uncomfortable to see what he had to do. He internalised the part. It took its toll physically, he was inhabiting an illness, which is a complicated thing to do. I was pushing him as far as he could go.”

Given Redmayne and Cumberbatch are playing scientists in British-set films, perhaps it’s inevitable that both are being compared with each other. Their head-to-head rivalry is becoming one of the big stories to emerge from awards season. (All the more because Cumberbatch portrayed Hawking in a BBC2 drama in 2004.)

Felperin says at this stage. “The Theory of Everything is a more complex film than The Imitation Game – less neat and tidy. There’s more depth to his character too: he has to cover a much larger time span than Cumberbatch.

“Redmayne starts out as a young, gauche know-it-all, and then has to go through a huge evolution. I have to say, the performance supports it beautifully. Although we are familiar with certain aspects of Hawking – unlike Turing – Redmayne manages to find something underneath all that.”

Felperin also points out that Redmayne is receiving the plaudits and awards-season action for the “right thing” – a top-notch performance with no suggestion that other factors are at play. “The feeling about The Imitation Game is that it’s good but not great. Everyone likes Cumberbatch for other things, but he can’t get an Oscar for Sherlock. So they may get behind him for this film. On the other hand, Redmayne is there for something genuinely great.”

It would, however, be not quite fair to say Redmayne has emerged from nowhere. These things are relative, of course: Redmayne may not have a hit TV series on his CV, but he took the lead role in the 2012 two-part BBC adaptation of Birdsong, and a year earlier played Shakespeare’s Richard II at the Donmar Warehouse (a review of that performance by the Guardian’s Michael Billington criticising his acting technique reportedly caused him to burst into tears).

As far as film goes, Redmayne – at 32, he is six years younger than Cumberbatch – was quick out of the blocks. He scored a first lead role in the extraordinary 2008 release Savage Grace. Playing real-life killer Antony Baekeland, the role called on Redmayne to have sex with, then murder, his character’s mother Barbara Daly Baekeland, the ex-wife of the heir to the Bakelite fortune (played by Julianne Moore).

Redmayne and Cumberbatch were practically level pegging when they appeared in small roles in The Other Boleyn Girl, also released in 2008, both playing husbands of Scarlett Johannson’s Mary Boleyn.

In the succeeding period, however, Redmayne never quite achieved Cumberbatch’s career lift-off. While Cumberbatch went on to Sherlock (first broadcast in 2010) and then a succession of meaty roles in the likes of War Horse, The Hobbit and 12 Years a Slave, Redmayne was cast as Angel Clare in the BBC’s Tess of the d’Urbevilles, and then landed a role as painter Mark Rothko’s assistant in John Logan’s play Red, which won him awards for its West End and Broadway productions.

On film, Redmayne’s breakthrough proved to be My Week With Marilyn, in which he played the pivotal, if not most eyecatching, role of Colin Clark, the real-life film-set runner who befriended Marilyn Monroe during her time in England shooting The Prince and the Showgirl in 1957.

Although Redmayne’s co-stars Michelle Williams and Kenneth Branagh hogged most of the limelight, My Week With Marilyn was a surprise critical and box-office hit, leading to appearances at high-profile award ceremonies (including two Oscar nominations, six Bafta nods, and a Golden Globe win for Williams). He then proved his chops in another popular hit, Les Misérables, playing the revolutionary Marius Pontmercy.

Redmayne was thus able to become a properly accredited member of the public school actors club, joining the likes of Tom Hiddleston, Damian Lewis, and Dominic West – who was himself nominated for a Golden Globe for the TV series The Affair. All the above were schooled at Eton, with Redmayne being almost exact contemporaries with Hiddleston (and Prince William), while Lewis and West are a decade or so older.

For Felperin, “class confidence” has helped this clutch of actors achieve success. “You have to be confident, to keep plugging away and believe that you’ll make it. I think that’s what they’ve picked up from Eton. And you have to have the resources too.”

Some, like Tom Hooper, Redmayne’s director on Les Misérables, see the Eton issue as irrelevant, telling the Evening Standard: “Eddie has the most prodigious gift, and it’s got to a point where his talent transcends the whole discussion … There are plenty of people who went to Eton. There is only one actor like him.”

It’s safe to say, that Redmayne’s background hasn’t held him back. Brought up in Chelsea, the son of an investment banker and a property agent, Redmayne went on to study at Cambridge, before being recommended by his Eton drama teacher to play Viola in the Globe theatre’s 2002 all-male production of Twelfth Night in Middle Temple hall.

Of course, Redmayne has another shot in his locker – what Felperin calls Prada model looks. “If we’re being honest, he and Hawking don’t naturally look much like each other. But Redmayne does transform completely.”

He is bit of a staple on magazine best-dressed lists, and has graced more than a few picture spreads for activities tenuously connected to actual film roles. It can sometimes damage an actor’s chances if they are seen as too much of a clotheshorse, but The Theory of Everything looks set to be his route to becoming a major player. He may not yet have the stellar popularity or recognition factor that Cumberbatch and Hiddleston enjoy but, as Felperin says, “the fact he’s not nearly so ubiquitous helps him a lot. He just doesn’t feel overexposed”.

Redmayne’s CV

Born 6 January 1982, London

Career Studied history of art at Trinity College, Cambridge. Halfway through his degree he was cast in Mark Rylance’s all-male staging of Twelfth Night, then went on to award-winning success in the British production of Edward Albee’s The Goat in 2004

High point Golden Globe nomination for best drama actor for The Theory of Everything

Low point Messing up auditions for his “childhood dream” film Star Wars

What he says “I feel like I’m not particularly willing to compromise … Until the mortgage starts needing to be paid. Then you’ll find me whoring myself out to literally anything”

What they say “I thought Redmayne portrayed me very well. At times I thought he was me. I think Eddie’s commitment will have a big emotional impact.” – Stephen Hawking, theoretical physicist

This article was written by Andrew Pulver, for The Guardian on Friday 12th December 2014 19.44 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


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